“Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry . . .” – Marx
I once bought a copy of James Baldwin’s, the “Shakespeare” of his time (sorry, Kanye), Another Country for a friend and was thanked with “Oh, I’m not really into race stuff.” I smiled and promptly ended that friendship. But in seriousness, I’ve never understood this type of attitude towards storytelling. Well, I do understand on some level, and the reasoning is rooted in a subtle psychological segregation. It seems that to many there are stories, movies, what have you, and then there are “black stories,” “black movies.” Consider that we rarely hear similar sentiments towards the all-white cast and all-white production team filled moobees that come off the Hollywood conveyor belt every year—because that’s the default setting, the nature of the conditioning. There’s one simple reason why Baldwin, a black and gay writer at a time when identifying as such was probably a great way to make friends with men in white hoodies, would be considered a 20th century analog to Shakespeare: Transcendence, the transcending of race, gender, politics, and all cultural divides. Baldwin, Shakespeare, Dr. Seuss, and all the greats may have spoken to particular experiences, but they did so emphasizing affinity among different people, not separatist identity politics. Cue Steve McQueen’s harrowingly beautiful and near perfect 12 Years a Slave. McQueen’s film isn’t simply a “black movie,” “race stuff,” or even the most brilliant depiction of American slavery to ever grace our eyes. 12 Years a Slave, above all other categorizations, is a great film. If you’re already planning to go watch it without any prods of rhetoric, which you have very little time to do so, fuck reading the rest of this review and go now.
12 Years a Slave shows us the based on truth story of Solomon Northrup, a free-born man who due to circumstance ends up a slave. The film opens with a crane shot steadily pushing through tall plantation sugar cane, a resource and piece of property, as if to say “In the beginning.” These filmmakers know what they’re doing and that’s the standard they keep for themselves. From there it’s masterful visual and sonic storytelling. The film tacitly wields the juxtaposition of sounds and images to craft an aesthetic argument illustrating the way in which America was built upon horrifying human suffering and ideological contradiction. Along with Hans Zimmer doing Hans Zimmer things, the sound design simultaneously overlays the tension of, say, the screams of a mother losing her children and a slave owner preaching the gospel. This use of clashing sounds at key moments functions as an auditory double exposure that highlight the lack of practice for what is preached.
McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt bring this attention to contradictions in the imagery, giving us chilling compositions such as a crane shot that begins with an extreme act of injustice and leads up to show the white house in the distance. “Right outside the capital,” McQueen says. The most unsettling instance of these visual oppositions is during what we will remember as one of the the film’s and all of cinema’s most powerful scenes. Without ruining it, McQueen purposefully lingers on a particular moment for far too long, to the point of discomfort, while keeping the onlookers in the film in and out of focus. This moment is probably the most emotionally effective example of simultaneous suffering, disempowerment of the viewer, and complacency ever committed to film. Just in case you’re wondering, this isn’t much of a popcorn flick.
In question throughout the whole film are the tools of oppression surrounding America’s particular brand of racism and slavery. Twisted ideologies in the form of everything from politics, religion, and the greatest offender, economics are coaxed out into the light with subtextual elegance. The commodification of people, of making them into a product with an exchange value no different than sugar cane or cotton, is put to trial, charging a self-serving economic infrastructure touted as truth as the starting point of a terrible crime.
John Ridley’s writing gives characters, that only have a few minutes of screen time, more personality and semblance of life than all of the characters in say Snyder’s Man of Steel combined (not a hard thing to do, but you get the idea). Notably, slave driver, Edwin Epps is masterfully acted by Michael Fassbender with a nuanced and unnerving complexity that will leave you with a weird, guilt ridden, sense of empathy towards the man as we begin to realize that the institution has mentally shackled him in a way not unlike the slaves. There seems to be no agency even for the masters in a society run on domination. For the viewer, Epps becomes the representative of institutional complacency, a sad white cog driven on cognitive dissonance and pathetic logical fallacies. You find yourself hoping that he will commit at least one act of redemption, to show tenderness when it seems it is the only natural option. And does he? Guess you’ll have to watch the film and see for yourself.
Is this a flawless film? Of course not. There are little hiccups here and there like any human creation. The film’s story does eventually resort to a deus ex machina ending to deliver us from evil, but this is a world with little to no freedom, so it seems appropriate. And like it matters. After the film ended people sat in silence, scrolling credits lighting solemn faces, as if all the film’s suffering forced our bodies into immobility. The last time I was witness to and participated in this kind of movie mourning was after Fruitvale Station, another film about unjust suffering at the hands of a social construct. Although Fruitvale makes its concerns more immediate (shit, I know a dozen guys like Oscar Grant), 12 Years a Slave is just as relevant. “What’s the point of churning up the past? It’s over now,” says your conservative uncle. You can smile, take a drink, and confidently say, “The point is remembering.” 12 Years a Slave reminds us how popular systems of belief like politics, religion, and economics, left unexamined can be used to manipulate a people and push an agenda to benefit the few. Sound familiar?
“. . . But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map. Being an economic category, slavery has existed in all nations since the beginning of the world. All that modern nations have achieved is to disguise slavery at home and import it openly into the New World.” – Marx